COLUMBUS, Ohio — The season boils down to one game for Illinois, forward Mike Davis said in the hallway outside the locker room following the Illini’s 73-57 loss to No. 6 Ohio State on Tuesday night at Value City Arena.
The season boils down to one game for Illinois, forward Mike Davis said in the hallway outside the locker room following the Illini’s 73-57 loss to No. 6 Ohio State on Tuesday night at Value City Arena.
The Illini need to beat No. 15 Wisconsin on Sunday (11 a.m., ESPN) at Assembly Hall in their increasingly shaky bid for an NCAA tournament berth. The alternative isn’t so pleasant.
“I see it as a Game 7,’’ Davis said. “Win or go home for postseason play. We’ve got home-court advantage. You can’t ask for more. We have to take care of home court. Nerves are tight right now. After playing bad the last two times, we have to come out at home and take care of home court.’’
The on-and-off Illini have no choice but to bring it. Illinois (18-12 overall, 10-7 in the Big Ten) can’t afford a three-game losing streak to end the regular season after an inconsistent non-conference run littered with bad losses.
This wasn’t a spot where the Illini were expected to snag a win. Ohio State clinched at least a share of the Big Ten title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. If somebody said the Buckeyes are the Big Ten’s best team as the season turns to March Madness, there might not be much of an argument.
Illinois stayed within 48-45 midway through the second half before Ohio State pulled away for its third conference title in six seasons.
“If we would have played with this effort Saturday (vs. Minnesota), we wouldn’t be in the predicament we’re in,’’ Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “If we played with this effort at home against (Ohio State), we might not be in this predicament. Our team is a funny team. They’ve been exciting at times. At the same time, they’re very inconsistent.’’
By virtue of Michigan’s 83-55 victory over Minnesota earlier Tuesday evening, Illinois will avoid playing in the conference tournament’s first round Thursday. The Illini will play in the quarterfinal game pitting the No. 4 and 5 seeds.
That would likely mean a two-game series against Wisconsin. The Illini upset the Badgers 63-56 in Madison on Feb. 9 for a win that appeared to put them on the right track. But the Illini have lost four of their last five games while lumbering through a stretch of six games in the final eight against top 15 opponents for the first time in school history.
“It’s huge,’’ Weber admitted. “We put ourselves in this situation. It shouldn’t be stressful. It’s a challenge and a great opportunity.
“Now I have to ask our fans. They’ve been great all year. They’ve stuck with us in the highs and lows. We need them Sunday. Get up early, got to church, say some prayers and get fired up. It will not be easy.’’
Not good enough
Guard Demetri McCamey had 18 points and seven assists, but the Illini eventually couldn’t keep pace with the talented Buckeyes (24-7, 14-4), who will wait to see if Purdue and Michigan State can force a tie for the regular-season title.
“We don’t have enough guys to guard their quality players,’’ Weber said. “Demetri did a good job keeping us in the game. (Freshman Brandon Paul) brings explosion. He has to learn shot selection, but he gives us a threat. He gives us athleticism.
“We have to get more out of our big guys and get to the free-throw line. We don’t go strong and play strong.’’
Paul scored 11 points and center Mike Tisdale had 10. Davis finished with nine points and 11 rebounds.
Ohio State guard Evan Turner, a prep teammate of McCamey at Westchester St. Joseph in the Chicago suburbs, guided the Buckeyes to the conference title. With the championship, there’s even less of a chance of Turner returning for his senior season.
Projected as the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft in June, Turner said his decision would depend on whether he gets what he wants out of this season. A Big Ten ring was the first step.
“Definitely win a Big Ten title and try to get a national championship and try to be one of the best ever to come out of here,’’ Turner said before compiling 16 points, 12 rebounds and five assists against the Illini.
Illinois report card
Front court, C- The Illini big men weren’t much of a threat. They had trouble scoring and perhaps even more difficulty defending the basket.
Back court, B Demetri McCamey carried the Illini. When he was whistled for his second foul midway through the first half and went to the bench, the Illini quickly blew a five-point lead.
Bench, C- Brandon Paul was the only Illini reserve to score or play more than 7 minutes.
Overall, C- While Illinois gave an effort through the first 30 minutes, they didn’t have the talent to stick with Ohio State. Illinois faces a one-game season, not because of this loss but due to erratic play against teams like Minnesota, Northwestern, Bradley and Utah.
John Supinie can be reached at 217-377-1977.